Using innovative technology to build a competitive global brand
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Australian growers work in one of the most challenging environments in the
world. They have long recognised that to build distinctive and competitive
global brands, they have to adapt to difficult climate conditions, be
innovative, and make full use of the latest technology.
Costa Group, Australia’s leading horticulture company, is an exemplar of
how an Australian business has implemented a transformative change program
underpinned by digital investment.
Technology has been adopted across every stage of Costa’s production – from
biotech seed selection, to climate sensors and data analytics. Technology
is also used for crop and yield predictions, closed system vertical
farming, climate prediction, and the digitised sorting of produce and
selection for packaging.
Costa Group grows, packs, markets and distributes five core fresh produce
categories: berries, mushrooms, glasshouse-grown tomatoes, citrus and
‘Finding more sustainable ways to make fresh, healthy food available for
everyone is one of the most critical issues of our times,’ says Costa Group
CEO Harry Debney. ‘Costa has a part to play here, for our portfolio
consists solely of fresh healthy produce.’
A growing international presence
Costa’s R&D program is fundamentally important to the company’s
long-term growth strategy. The program includes varietal development and
differentiation, agronomic practices and farming productivity and
Costa’s operations are spread across Australia, including 4,500 planned
hectares of farmland, 30 hectares of tomato glasshouse facilities (40
hectares from mid-2020) at Guyra in northern New South Wales, and seven
mushroom-growing facilities across five states of Australia.
These operations are supplemented by a diverse network of third-party
growers – Costa works with partners, both domestically and internationally.
‘An important part of Costa’s success is applying its business model and
agronomic practices to growing environments outside Australia,’ says
Debney. International operations now include majority-owned joint ventures
in China and Morocco.
‘We are now into our third year of expansion in China,’ Debney notes.
‘Costa has been a world leader in blueberry varietal improvement. We have
been breeding blueberry varieties for over 30 years, growing them both in
Australia and internationally, as well as licensing them through the
‘China is already the largest market for fruit in the world – and growing,’
he says. ‘We currently have three substrate berry farms in Yunnan Province.
In Morocco, where we have been in operation for over a decade and have six
blueberry farms, our premium produce is perfectly positioned to supply
blueberries to the nearby UK and European markets.’
Water assets and proactive risk management
Over the past 10 years, Costa has put significant investment into water
assets and technology.
‘Water is obviously a key input for horticulture,’ comments Debney, ‘so we
have focused on water security – water capture, water recycling and,
particularly, water efficiency.’
The results have been nothing short of stunning, he says. ‘Our
glasshouse-grown tomatoes, for example, use approximately 49 litres of
water to produce one kilogram of crop, while out in the field around 216
litres of water are needed to produce the same crop. That’s a huge
Debney explains that Costa’s vertically integrated business model is
designed to manage agricultural risk. ‘We practise proactive risk
management in a number of ways, including the diversification of our
categories and geographic spread. We also grow plants in protective
cropping environments, and we aim for produce categories that have 52-week
Farm sensors capture data
Technology is being used by Costa as part of its operations in a variety of
ways. At many of its berry-growing locations, the company is piloting
sensors from Australian agtech firm, The Yield, where Debney acts as
Deployed to different micro-climates within a field, these sensors capture
information about plant conditions which is converted into seven-day
forecasts, using artificial intelligence and predictive models.
The Yield’s technology combines hardware, data analytics and apps, to help
increase yield, reduce waste, mitigate the risk and cost associated with
bad weather, and aid environmental sustainability.
‘Having the right information is key because it helps a grower make
decisions,’ says Debney. ‘With The Yield system, we get real-time
information about photosynthetic active radiation, barometric pressure,
relative humidity, total solar radiation, rainfall, air temperature, wind
speed and direction, leaf wetness, soil moisture and soil temperature.’
Robotics and mechanical harvesting
Because fresh fruit and vegetables are difficult to harvest mechanically,
they are labour intensive to produce.
‘In the future we expect that robotics will be used to harvest
horticultural crops, but that technology is still some way off,’ says
Debney. ‘The only robotics we use today are in the packing of produce.
‘Nevertheless, we know that robotics will have an important role to play in
coming years, so we’re putting a lot of energy into this.
‘For example, we expect that eventually robotics will be able to help us to
harvest more efficiently, to improve our production yield, and to reduce
product and supply chain waste.
‘Applying the right technology to your business is crucial for success
today,’ he adds.
Sorting and packing technology
Costa has invested in a technology that covers the final phase of its
production line – sorting and packing – and is particularly used for citrus
and berry crops. Utilising the latest optics and software, images are taken
of each piece of fruit at high speed and in high resolution, and the fruit
is accurately sorted by defect into grades.
‘This technology has been adapted by us to suit our needs,’ explains
Debney. ‘It’s not widely used elsewhere, and could be considered
state-of-the-art.’ He adds that the images have proved to be highly
accurate with respect to colour and blemish, which is important for export
markets, particularly Japan.
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